Three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay on the sidelines of the investors’ summit in Guwahati, February 6-7, Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat, foreign secretary Vijay K. Gokhale and national security adviser Ajit Doval proceeded on an initially unreported visit to Bhutan — a rare one and a first of such a combination — during which they held extensive talks with top Bhutanese leaders on strategic issues, including the situation in Doklam.
The two sides reviewed bilateral security and defence cooperation issues with a focus on China’s increasing military posturing and infrastructure development in the key Doklam plateau. The Bhutanese side apprised the Indians about the status of boundary talks between Bhutan and China and emphasised that Thimphu wants peace in the Doklam tri-junction.
As a close friend and neighbour, Bhutan enjoys diplomatic and military support from India, based on the Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan of August 8, 1949, renegotiated and signed as a new treaty of friendship in 2007. The new treaty replaced the provision requiring Bhutan to take India’s guidance on foreign policy with broader sovereignty and not require Bhutan to obtain India’s permission over arms imports.
While Bhutan has no diplomatic ties with China, both countries are reportedly engaged in talks over the resolution of the dispute in the area. Any incursion by China into Doklam is of great concern to India as it is a tri-junction involving the three countries and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has since past 50 years been ceaselessly making incursions and transgressions across the 4,056-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC), despite peace and tranquility agreements. The 2012 agreement between special representatives of the two countries has been followed up with 20 rounds of talks. The only saving grace so far is that since the bloody 1967 Sino-Indian skirmishes at Nathu La, Sikkim, prolonged stand-off at Sumdorong Chu during 1986-87, many other incursions and transgressions, including Doklam in 2017 — 50 years since 1967 — all have been resolved by dialogue ranging from local commanders to diplomatic levels. But the Chinese modus of constantly trying to “push the envelope and test India’s patience”, as seasoned writer of Tibetan and Sino-Indian affairs Claude Arpi puts it, have continued, as seen, even after the Doklam stand-down.
The 73-day-long standoff in Doklam beginning from June 16 ended on August 28, 2017 mainly because China did not want to risk Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to attend the Brics summit from September 3-5, 2017. That is why it was timed a week before the summit and paid off as it also paved the way for a one-on-one meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 4. While during the standoff there was much bluster and very strong statements against India by China, put out through its government-controlled media, the resolution was followed by many positive statements. However, this writer is one of some Indian analysts who were not convinced about the post-August 28 thaw/cessation of construction activity at Doklam and withdrawal from it being permanent.
During the pre-Army Day interaction with the media on January 12, 2018, Gen. Rawat, in reply to this writer’s query, explained the layout of Doklam and the current deployment of the PLA there. He informed that while in North Doklam facing Bhutan, Chinese troops had “thinned out” — not withdrawn fully — and that they had left all their tents and material intact, whereas in South Doklam, which faces India, they had cleared out.
During the same presser the Army Chief also made a mention that future wars would be fought on difficult terrains and in circumstances that Indian forces would have to be prepared for.
On February 20, 2018, minister of foreign affairs of Bhutan Lyonpo Damcho Dorji was on a three-day official visit to India. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj held talks with Mr Dorji on February 21, 2018, covering the entire gamut of bilateral relations, including the upcoming high-level exchanges between the two countries. They expressed satisfaction at the excellent state of bilateral ties, which are unique and time tested, and reiterated their commitment to further advance these exemplary ties for mutual benefit. The two leaders reviewed the commemorative activities planned this year to mark the golden jubilee of formal diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan and both the ministers attended a special event hosted by the Royal Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi, as part of the golden jubilee celebrations to coincide with the 38th birthday of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan.
The US geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, observing the Doklam area has reportedly stated: “the imagery confirms that both China and India are pursuing a wide-ranging strategic build-up that has only accelerated in the wake of the 27 August agreement”. Stratfor’s images focus on the accompanying build-up in air power to support ground forces. On the Indian side of the border, imagery of Bagdogra airbase near Siliguri and Hasimara Air Force station shows how India has moved to reinforce its air power close to the Doklam plateau. Bagdogra normally has a transport helicopter unit while Hasimara was the base for MiG-27ML ground attack aircraft until they were phased out at the end of 2017. Stratfor’s images show that since mid-2017, Indian Air Force has greatly increased the deployment of Su-30MKI jets to these airbases. The advanced BrahMos cruise missile can reach into the Tibet Autonomous Region and counter China’s elaborate missile deployment along the LAC.
On the Chinese side, Stratfor says: “an even greater level of activity is visible from imagery of the Chinese airbases near Lhasa and Shigatse. This expansion may indicate a greater build-up by the Chinese,” but Stratfor notes: “it could also reflect the more advanced facilities at these bases. Furthermore, unlike India, China’s lack of airbases close to the LAC forces it to concentrate more of its air power at these airports”.
Imagery of the two airbases shows a significant presence of fighter aircraft (which Stratfor says peaked in October 2017) and a notable increase in helicopters, as well as deployments of KJ-500 airborne early warning and command aircraft, components of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile system and Soar Dragon unmanned aerial vehicles at Shigatse Peace Airport. Immediately after the Doklam standoff, the Chinese upgraded the Shigatse airfield with a new runaway constructed by mid-December and other infrastructure improvements.
The Stratfor analysis concludes: “It is only a question of time until a new flashpoint along the LAC emerges, and as the increased activity shows, both sides will have greater capabilities to bring to bear” in any future crisis. The fact that for 50 years since 1967, Chinese forces have thousands of times provoked their Indian counterparts with transgressions/incursions across the LAC and often both have at most grappled, wrestled, etc, and negotiated without the Chinese pulling the trigger only means that they have been all along and are still — as in Doklam — mindful of skirmishes at Nathu La and Cho La, Sikkim in 1967, when the PLA suffered about 400 fatal casualties and destruction of a convoy of vehicles and many bunkers. While India has never and most likely will never pull any trigger first, no matter how much more superiority Chinese may have in numbers of troops and weapon systems, it will not be in China’s interest at all to up the ante again and lead to an armed confrontation.
Meanwhile, India seems fated to keep “managing” the LAC, albeit assertively, because China does not seem to be inclined so far towards meaningful peace and tranquility.